Back in the early days of the Internet, when newsgroups were still in vogue, I used to frequent alt.fan.elvis-costello where I conversed with a group of smart, literate music fans/computer nerds who shared my fondness for Elvis Costello.
The Web has become so much about images and sounds that it’s hard to believe there was a time when people engaged each other on the Internet primarily through words.
It reminds me of the Infocom video games I loved in the 80s, which consisted of text descriptions of your adventure and simple prompts where the player would type things like “Walk west” and “Pick up the key.” Compared to today’s cinema-quality games, those things are like cave paintings.
In 1998, Elvis Costello followed up All This Useless Beauty with Painted From Memory, a collection of songs co-written with Burt Bacharach. Even longtime Costello fans, accustomed to the man’s musical detours, were understandably taken aback.
My initial reaction to Painted From Memory was along the lines of the old guy at the Past Lives Pavilion in Defending Your Life: “What the hell is this? What the hell’s going on here?” [To see what I’m referring to, check out this clip, and as an aside, if you haven’t seen Defending Your Life, you should do so right away.]
Costello put all of his recent vocal training to good use on his next release, a collection of crooner ballads written with Burt Bacharach. This is far and away the squarest release of his career — even The Juliet Letters feels like punk next to this one.
But it’s definitely a solid song collection. Songs such as ‘Toledo,’ ‘This House is Empty Now,’ ‘In the Darkest Place’ and today’s Song of the Day are right up there with Costello’s best solo work. My biggest fault with Painted From Memory is the production, which is much heavier on the Bacharach than the Costello. The backing vocals alone make this a rather labored listen.